Under Kelvin Sampson, Houston has become one of college basketball’s foremost practitioners of defense.
The same long has been said of Virginia under coach Tony Bennett.
On Saturday, when the No. 5 Cougars (10-1) face the No. 2 Cavaliers (8-0) in Charlottesville, Va., expect the pace to be measured, the shots to be contested and the points difficult to come by.
Pick a defensive metric and Houston likely is near the top. The Cougars rank No. 1 in the nation in fewest average points allowed (49.4) and field-goal defense (31.6 percent), No. 2 in points per possession (.739) and No. 3 in 3-point defense (23.7 percent).
Houston has a deep rotation, with 10 players averaging at least 12 minutes per game, allowing the Cougars to stay fresh and apply relentless pressure.
Late last month, the Cougars ascended to No. 1 for the first time since 1983. But on Saturday they lost 71-65 at home to then-No. 8 Alabama and two days later surrendered their position in the rankings.
On Tuesday, the Cougars rebounded with a routine 74-46 win over North Carolina A&T as Ja’Vier Francis notched career highs in points (17) and rebounds (15).
After making just 2 of 11 shots from the field in the loss to Alabama, Marcus Sasser recovered with 6-of-10 shooting on his way to 17 points vs. the Aggies. The Cougars held them to 28.8 percent shooting and dominated in rebounding 46-26.
“Whoever you play after a game like that, your biggest concern is getting your energy level back up,” Sampson said. “It was a quick turnaround, which is hard to do. Where it affects you the most is your legs because these kids play so hard.”
Last season when Houston thumped Virginia 67-47, Sasser was the game’s leading scorer with 19 points.
“They took it to us last year,” Bennett said. “Sasser was terrific. We couldn’t keep those guys off the glass. They turned us over. It was just the physicality and the intensity of how they play.”
Virginia will employ the same starting five it used last season, when it struggled to an uncharacteristic 21-14 mark.
The difference this season has been the offensive cohesion as the Cavaliers rank No. 16 in offensive efficiency (1.11 points per possession) and No. 12 in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.56).
Virginia gets balanced scoring, with each of the starters averaging between 9.1 and 11.6 points per game, as Kihei Clark and Jayden Gardner share the team lead. Kadin Shedrick leads the Cavaliers in blocks (2.0) and steals (1.6) per game.
The Cavaliers are coming off a long break, with their most recent game a 55-50 win over James Madison on Dec. 6, as Clark had 18 points and seven assists and Gardner added 14 points and eight rebounds.
Virginia’s best perimeter defender, Reece Beekman, played just four minutes, aggravating a leg injury. His status for the Houston game is uncertain, Bennett said Monday.
Beekman will be needed if the Cavaliers want to match the depth of the Cougars.
“The way they defend, they make you earn every ounce,” Bennett said. “They have mature, powerful, athletic players. They’re real tough. That’s kind of their mindset.”
–Field Level Media